Overcoming Resistance to Change

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Modern-day companies are in a constant state of learning, their growth often determined by their willingness to evolve with the times. New technologies, practices and societal and cultural shifts are happening faster than ever but implementing them into our business operations isn’t always easy. 

The evolution of anything is all very exciting for humanity on the whole (go humans) but, for the individuals forced to adopt these organisational changes, it can be a nerve-inducing and sometimes overwhelming experience and in some cases, you might find people flat-out refuse to change at all. 

These psychological and physiological responses to change are known as resistance

What is resistance to change? 

Resistance to change isn’t always obvious. It can manifest as either a person publicly acknowledging that they don't like the idea being presented to them or, they may not air their dissatisfaction at all but rather display unwillingness through their body language and actions. 

As an example, let’s say your company is about to introduce a new onboarding system (organisational change) and it’s your job as the project manager to roll it out to the team. 

Here’s what might happen after the organisational change is presented: 

  • 50% of the team supports the change. They’re enthusiastic about the new system and can see how it will improve both their day-to-day job role and the company goals. Excellent. 

  • 30% of the team feel anxious about adopting a new system and how much they’ll have to learn. They vocalise this to you, the project manager. Let’s call this 'Resistance Type A.' 

  • The remaining 20% of the team appear to have taken it well. They haven’t shown outright enthusiasm but they haven’t shot down the idea either. However, over the coming days, you notice a drop in morale. This group seem demotivated and unproductive, creating negative energy in the office. Let’s call this 'Resistance Type B.' 

So as we can see in this example, there are two potential outcomes for resistance to change: one psychological and one physiological

Why do people resist change? 

In their work on resistance change theory, John P. Kotter and Leonard A. Schlesinger conclude that are four situations where people exhibit resistance to change: 

1. Self-interest 

The first situation is pretty self-explanatory but to elaborate, this is where an individual feels that they will lose more than they will gain. This might be an unwelcome change to their role that limits their freedom, their ability to connect with another colleague or a new change that means they will be forced out of their comfort zone, for example. 

Acting on self-interest, an individual will show resistance to any change that does not directly benefit them and if things don’t work out, will blame the changes rather than themselves. 

2. Lack of trust and misunderstanding 

Sometimes it’s not the change itself that bothers a person but rather the person implementing it. If an employee has no confidence, doesn’t trust or simply doesn't like the person responsible for the organisational change, they will show resistance to comply. 

3. Differing opinions 

One department might see the proposed change as a great thing and can see the benefit of implementing it. Another department might feel the total opposite, that the proposed change is underhanded or that there is a corporate agenda to micro-manage the teams. 

This divisiveness across teams can fuel resistance. 

4. Fear of failure or having a low tolerance to change 

The final situation where individuals might feel resistance to change is through a lack of confidence in their ability to adopt new skills. This self-doubt is often enough to keep people in their comfort zones and build up huge resistance to any sort of change. 

Change management, a framework for enabling change, refers to the ADKAR model. This aims to give training and knowledge to employees to help them overcome self-doubt and fear of failure. 

Tips to overcome resistance to change 

It’s not all doom and gloom though! Fortunately, research has led us to identify the commonalities in change resistance and offers us guidance on how best to approach it. 

Here are a few ways you can overcome resistance to change: 

1. Educate your team on any proposed changes 

Knowledge is power! The more your team knows about a change and its perceived benefits, the more they will feel more on your level about it all. This will increase the willingness to adopt change and improve their attitude towards it. 

Schedule a chat with the team to discuss, in detail, all of the changes and systematically break it down for them, taking and answering questions as you go. 

2. Gather input from the team so they feel valued 

Sometimes, organisational change will be sent down the chain without input from the people expected to follow it (refer to the above point). But, if possible, gather the input of your team about a proposed change so that their voice can be heard. 

After all, your teams have the most experience with systems and processes and oftentimes, their insights are invaluable when transformational changes. 

3. Give support to your team 

To combat feelings of doubt and fear, tap into your emotional intelligence and offer your support. Your team needs to know that their concerns are being heard and validated by management. 

Training builds knowledge to overcome a lot of these doubts but to combat emotional responses, a simple one-to-one talk can air a lot of problems or, point them in the direction of HR if you think it would serve them better. Whatever you decide, don’t let them feel isolated or neglected. 

4. Co-opting 

Another good strategy is to put an individual, who exhibited resistance to change but is now in full support, in a central role for its implementation. 

This sends a comforting signal to colleagues who might be on the fence or outright opposed that if someone they know and trust has come aboard, perhaps they should too. 

5. Be passionate and enthusiastic 

This might sound obvious to some but it is paramount that when you are implementing organisational change, you do so with unrivalled enthusiasm. 

When others see your passion for the company’s vision and how these changes will drive the team forward to a better place, it’s hard for people to ignore it. 

Wrapping up 

Resistance is unavoidable. It’s simply unrealistic to expect every single person to willingly and confidently adopt new changes without feedback. 

The key is learning to identify resistance when it pops up and tackle the issue head-on. With some emotional and social intelligence, leaders can overcome these challenges and inspire teams to push forward.